Jane Austen’s novels take place in relatively insular country villages. Inevitably, these “three or four families” intermingle frequently and exchange gossip and letters.  In Austen’s novels, information is a vital currency, and its circulation is central to her plots.  Sometimes, information percolates rapidly throughout the community, as it does with Emma’s engagement to Mr. Knightley in Emma.  In other cases, information proves crucial to other characters, as is the case when Elizabeth hides the contents of Mr. Darcy’s letter in Pride and Prejudice.  In this study, I will examine the circulation of gossip in Emma and how information moves within the town.  I will use gephi to model the circulation of gossip in the entire novel, as well as in individual chapters.

To first define our terms, the Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb “gossip” as, “To talk idly, mostly about other people’s affairs; to go about tattling” (“gossip, v.”).  Based on this definition, we might take gossip to mean the discussion of other people’s business.  Further, the OED defines the noun “gossip” as, “A person, mostly a woman, of light and trifling character, esp. one who delights in idle talk; a newsmonger, a tattler” (“gossip, n.”).  Using these two definitions, we might develop a more complete understanding of gossip.  Generally, we will take gossip to mean the act of sharing information about other people, but the term is loaded with connotations.  Firstly, although both men and women in Emma participate in gossip, it carries a feminine connotation, and we will further explore that later.  Additionally, we might expect that those participating in gossip have no personal investment in the object of gossip.  The news they are sharing is, by all accounts, none of their business, but, presumably because they are idle women, they have nothing else to engage them.[1]  The term “gossip,” then, carries with it highly gendered and patriarchal implications, even when applied to a variety of contexts.

Other scholars have already written extensively about gossip in Jane Austen’s works, and a few specific articles are foundational to my work.  In their article “The Tittle-Tattle of Highbury,” Casey Finch and Peter Bowen discuss the societal power of gossip in Emma and the alignment between public and private.  Gossip makes private affairs public and is “the very ground upon which the community is articulated, identified, and controlled,” (Finch, 2).  Also foundational to my work is the notion of gossip’s inherent femininity; it carries connotations of female idleness and triviality.  Scholars before me have argued that Austen uses gossip in a way that provides women with a degree of power and subverts preconceived notions of gossip as inherently useless.  In the article “Homespun Gossip: Jane West, Jane Austen, and the Task of Literary Criticism,” Erin Goss argues exactly that, and goes so far as to say that “one of the myriad of tasks that Austen sets for herself is the redemption of gossip, as so often in her novels, the reader – along with the characters – must come to accept and even condone gossip that is initially seen as suspect,” (Goss, 170).  Finally, scholars have drawn connections between gossip and Austen’s use of free indirect discourse, which I originally intended to explore in this project.  Finch and Bowen make this claim in their work, and “Jane Austen and the Impact of Form” by Frances Ferguson provides another foundational work for my understanding and critical analysis of free indirect discourse.

Gossip is generally considered a feminine pastime, bringing to mind vapid or silly women with nothing else to do but gossip about their neighbors.  However, Austen legitimizes gossip in her narrative, as it provides information to the characters and to the reader.  In her article “Homespun Gossip: Jane West, Jane Austen, and the Task of Literary Criticism,” Erin M. Goss locates the history of marginalization of the female gossip in the etymology of the word “gossip.”  The definitions of the word develop from a godparent, to a woman’s closest friends, to the modern definition of a woman who shares idle news.  Through these changing definitions, we see that the gossip has shifted from a vitally important member of a family’s circle to an insignificant, gossiping woman.  Goss writes, “Gossip then carries within itself the history of its own marginalization; once the name of an official and even sacramental addition to a family structure, it comes to be the marker of a denigrated and specifically feminine form of discourse that is, at best, useless,” (Goss, 167).

Although most if not all of the characters in Emma participate in gossip to some degree, we might consider Miss Bates the town gossip, and even the voice of gossip[2].  She is in many ways the negative stereotype of the gossip; she is a busybody, constantly prattling on about one insignificant thing or another.  However, we learn to empathize with Miss Bates, as does Emma.  Despite her sometimes annoying tendencies, Miss Bates is a devoted and kind friend and entirely harmless.  Further, as a relatively poor, unmarried woman, she finds herself in need of other characters’ company and empathy, as Mr. Knightley points out to Emma.[3]  In terms of causing harm to the other characters, Emma is far more to blame than Miss Bates.  Gossip “serves as a genuinely alternative mode of communication for women who have been historically excluded from dominant discourses; in one and the same movement, gossip is dismissed as feminine ‘tittle-tattle’ and put to use as a serious and privileged form of knowledge,” (Finch, 3).

Frank Churchill is a central figure in Highbury, but until the second volume of the novel, we only hear about him from other characters.[4]  He is continually absent, but his absence endears him to the residents of Highbury and ensures that a “lively curiosity prevails” in the town regarding his life (Emma, 14).  As the child of Mr. Weston, Frank Churchill holds a position of significance in the town and is often paired with Emma Woodhouse as a potential match.  The fact that Mr. Churchill has visited his father, even for his wedding to Miss Taylor, is indicative of his unreliability.  However, we as readers gladly overlook this fact in the face of the town’s active interest in his life.  He is thought to be wealthy, charming, and single, all traits that appear to be true when he arrives in the town.  Austen spends the entirety of the first volume building up Mr. Churchill’s character, so by the time he actually arrives, we (and Emma) have no choice but to view him as an attractive and eligible bachelor.  Of course, the implications of this impression are that when his engagement to Jane comes as a shock to Emma, we too are just as surprised.  In this way, Austen shapes our perceptions of a character through gossip before we actually meet him.

Just as notable as whose voices are the loudest is whose are silent.  Doctor Perry is a significant character in that other characters frequently refer to him, but he never actually appears.[5]  The residents of Highbury love to look to Doctor Perry for medical advice, and he seems to be an expert at telling them what they want to hear.  Mr. Woodhouse is the character to most frequently cite his advice.  In one notable scene, Doctor Perry reluctantly acknowledges “that wedding-cake might certainly disagree with many – perhaps with most people, unless taken moderately,” (Emma, 16).  However, a “strange rumour” later circulates about the Perry children eating cake, indicating that Doctor Perry has only told Mr. Woodhouse what he wants to hear.  In this way, he encourages Mr. Woodhouse’s fears, and he likewise confirms the preconceived notions of other characters in the book.  This is one of the only instances in which we receive Doctor Perry’s exact language, but of course we only hear from him through free indirect discourse.  The statement that cake can be unhealthy “unless taken moderately,” reveals that Doctor Perry is both pandering to what Mr. Woodhouse wants to hear while still giving medically sound advice.  This instance of free indirect discourse is the closest we get to Doctor Perry, as he does not directly appear anywhere in the novel.  Instead, we hear his medical advice from the residents of Highbury and, as seen above, occasionally through free indirect discourse.  Doctor Perry serves as a reflection of the thoughts and desires of the other characters without having a concrete presence in the book.

In this project, I will explore gossip in Emma through a digital lens.  These ideas will be fundamental to my work as I attempt to digitally examine the way information flows throughout Highbury.  I will focus first on the full novel, then on two specific chapters.  For more information about those chapters, please see this post.

[1] In constructing this definition, we already begin to see how Austen deconstructs the notion of gossip, namely regarding the idea that it is unimportant.  Even if two gossiping characters have no apparent relation to the object of their conversation, the social goings-on of Highbury are of great import to the woman of the story due to their reliance on marriage for a suitable future.

[2] Miss Bates’s role as the town gossip allows her to hold a good deal of information, and she contributes significantly to the network of communication we see in the book. In digitalizing this network (as discussed in the Methodology section), we might expect to find her at the center of the network, one of the most frequent contributors.  However, it also seems likely that she is one of the least gossiped about, as her social standing ensures that she is not a key player in Emma’s romantic endeavors outside of her ability to share news.

[3] “She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born into; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion,” (Emma, 295).

[4] In considering a network of gossip, we might expect to find that Mr. Churchill is a significant figure in terms of gossip about him, but his participation is a different story, at least in the first volume.  Until the second volume, Mr. Churchill only engages in the network through a few letters, and after that he becomes a much more vocal participant.

[5] As we never hear from Doctor Perry directly, we might expect to see him in the network as one gossiped about but not engaging directly in the network himself.